Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9 and Psalm 24 • Revelation 21:1-6a • John 11:32-44
Forty years ago this month, Marlo Thomas and “friends” released an illustrated book and album titled, “Free to be… You and Me.” Aimed at reinforcing children’s beliefs that each can become most fully themselves, whoever they are, no matter their gender, ethnicity or background, it’s exactly the kind of book I would’ve expected my parents to read to me. Astonishingly, I arrived at college in the early-90s having never heard of it.
It wasn’t until I joined the men’s a cappella ensemble on campus and we learned the song sung by Rosey Grier, “It’s Alright to Cry.” Grier, who’d been a defensive tackle for the LA Rams and the New York Giants was something of a giant himself at 6’5”. After leaving professional sports he was, briefly, a body guard for Robert Kennedy during the 1968 Presidential campaign and was present on the day of his assassination, wresting the gun from the shooter. A big part of Grier’s public persona, however, derived from the way he played against the stereotypes of what a large, athletic, black athlete ought to be. Around the same time he recorded “It’s Alright to Cry” he also published a book, “Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men.” His autobiography was titled, “Rosey, an Autobiography: The Gentle Giant.”
Forty years later, on the other side of “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” and other cultural responses to increasing flexibility in gender roles, we might suspect that telling men, or women for that matter, that it’s alright to cry would be no big deal. Surely, in our therapeutic, talk-show saturated, catharsis-oriented media culture we’ve all figured out that it’s alright to cry. We cry at Hallmark commercials. We cry at romantic comedies. We cry all the time, right?
Then there’s a week like this last one, when life’s storms break along the coastline of our lives, leaving us powerless. When Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey Shore just south of Atlantic City and blew up through New York City and the five boroughs, it brought ample opportunities for tears as it claimed the lives of over a hundred people in the United States alone and left an estimated $50 billion in damages. Yet, in our shock, it wasn’t immediately clear that we knew how to feel. For days, Mayor Bloomberg reassured registrants for the New York City Marathon that the race would go on, that things would be restored to normal.
In the privacy of our homes, in darkened movie theaters, we know it’s alright to cry. In public, however, we still too often treat death as something to be hidden and grief as something to be managed. Life, like the race, goes on regardless of the emotions swelling subcutaneously, crashing against our hearts and flooding our throats.
The gospel reading assigned for All Saints Sunday is drenched with emotions. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, weeps. Jesus, despite the best efforts of translators to deny it, is angry. Like many English translations of the scriptures, the one we read this morning translates the Greek embrimaomai as “greatly disturbed.” “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed.” And later, “Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.” Embrimaomai, which the translators have rendered “greatly disturbed,” literally translates as “to be moved with anger” or even, “to snort with anger.” As it turns out, we are just as uncomfortable with Jesus anger as we are with our own tears. So, translators and friends and coworkers try to help us out by covering those feelings up, by giving us “space” to grieve in private, by glossing over our anger at the power of death to disrupt life.
One of the reasons I think we cover Jesus’ anger up with the euphemism “greatly disturbed” is that we’re unsure who he’s angry at. Some translators have suggested that he is angry at Mary and Martha’s disbelief. Others have wondered if he’s angry that this intensely private moment has been made public. Still others have suggested that Jesus’ anger is at those who are already preparing to hand him over to the Roman authorities. If any of these are the best reading, then it easier to understand why we’d want to downgrade Jesus’ anger to a deep disturbance, because if Jesus’ anger is reserved for people’s ordinary and predictable responses to death, then we have to wonder if Jesus would be angry with us. If Mary and Martha’s understandable grief at the loss of their third sibling was cause for Jesus’ anger, then what room is there for us to grieve the death of our own sisters and brothers? If the natural desire to have this private grief acknowledged in public is the cause of Jesus anger, then how can we even gather on a day like today, All Saints Day, to mourn our dead even as we give thanks for their lives?
The reading I find most compelling is that Jesus is angry with death itself. Read in the context of the verses that precede the ones we read this morning, it is clear that Jesus has delayed coming to Bethany, where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived, precisely so that he could demonstrate his power over death. For him to be angry at the very people who are suffering on account of his delay would be a cruel judgement. Likewise, in the Gospel of John, Jesus has no difficulty naming a lack of faith when it occurs, so the fact that he says nothing to condemn the onlookers for faithlessness might suggest that this was not his concern.
Instead, everything about this scene reads like a showdown, like a boxing match between opponents. On the one side, a death so complete the body has already begun to decay. On the other side, a contender against the powers of death. The match looks unbalanced, surely this is not a fair fight. Like a boxer in the ring, Jesus is not simply greatly disturbed, he is moved, his is snorting with anger at death, the foe.
This makes more sense to me, especially in light of the passage from Revelation and the one from Isaiah, passages that reassure me that God is not waiting to gather us up and away from this earth, but that the new heaven and the new earth are coming down to meet us where we are. That God comes to us in the midst of our suffering, and grief, and tears, and does not shame us but, instead, sets a table before us overflowing with rich foods and choice wines, and consoles us. Wipes away our tears, but not our feelings.
Of course, All Saints Sunday is about more than our feelings, more than our tears. It is about the promise that when God enters the ring in the form of Jesus, that death is defeated and resurrected life is won for all of creation. There are big truths and big doctrines to be named and proclaimed: that we are all saints; that the candle lit at our baptism and the candles that will one day be lit in our memories and placed on altars such as these cast the same light; that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness, who call to us across time and space encouraging us as we run this race. But many of those doctrines and themes and big ideas arise from other scriptures read in other years. The scriptures assigned for this year’s All Saints Sunday are filled with tears, they affirm the grief-drenched cries of sisters and brothers and the snorting anger of family and friends — and they promise us that death does not have the final word. There is a new heaven and a new earth coming to meet us, here, in this life and in whatever lies beyond this life.
So, in the spirit of Jesus, who did not cover over his anger; and Rosey, who was man enough to cry; I want to share with you the song I learned back in college:
It’s All Right to Cry (from Free to Be… You and Me; as sung by Rosey Grier)
It’s all right to cry / crying gets the sad out of you / It’s all right to cry / it might make you feel better. (C – Dm7 – G – G/ C – Dm7 – G – C)
Raindrops from your eyes / Washing all the mad out of you / Raindrops from your eyes / It’s gonna make you feel better. (C – Dm7 – G – G/ C – Dm7 – G – C)
It’s all right to feel things / though the feelings may be strange / feelings are such real things / and they change and change and change. (Am – Em / F – C / Am – Em / F – F – G)
It’s all right to know / feelings come and feelings go / It’s all right to cry / It might make you feel better. (C – Dm7 – G – G/ C – Dm7 – G – C)
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